Not all godmothers are fairies,
and it is best to remember that
Death always keeps her promises...
and it is best to remember that
Death always keeps her promises...
Editor’s note: Lissa Sloan is probably the most published writer on EC. This story from 2017 shows why. Lissa draws readers in and make us root for her well-drawn characters. We feel their emotions, and the action is well paced. For those of you thinking of submitting a story. Take a good look at how this story is constructed. For everyone else, it’s just a great read.
Once there was a motherless girl. She had a powerful godmother who helped her get to the palace to win the heart of a handsome prince. But it was not the godmother you think. It was not the girl you think. And her tale does not end with a happily ever after. It ends like all tales, though, as you will see.
But we must begin at the beginning, not the end, and so we must go back. Back to the birth of the motherless girl. When Death came for the girl’s mother, the dying woman seized Death’s robes in her weakening hands. She knew her baby daughter would face hardships without her. Her husband would not want to be alone; he would marry again. And who would look after her daughter then? Who would put the child first? With her last breath, the mother begged Death to stand godmother to her baby girl. To watch over her and guide her. Death was used to begging, but no one had begged this favor before. Death leaned over the bundle in the father’s arms, examining the child. Then she nodded once. Her robes turned to smoke in the woman’s cold hands and swirled up the chimney. The father and daughter were alone.
But they were not alone for long. As the mother had known, the girl’s father was lonely and married again. The new wife had children of her own, and more children came along afterward, as children will. The motherless girl was thrust aside, and no one thought of her. Except for Death. Death was true to her promise. She came to the christening, she visited from time to time, and as the girl grew older, she began to make some provision for her future. The family had come upon hard times, and Death knew there would be no money for a dowry. So she decided to give her goddaughter a profession.
“You shall be a healer,” she told the girl. Together they walked in the woods, and Death showed the girl the right herbs to collect to make a cordial that would cure all but the gravest ills. “If you are summoned to a sickbed and see me at the bed’s head, then give your patient the medicine, and all will be well,” she told her. “Until the next time, at least,” she said, her robes lifting in the slightest of shrugs. Then she put her bony hand under the girl’s chin, forcing her to look into the depths of her black eyes. “But if I am at the bed’s foot, then there is no help for him. And you must not try.” The girl nodded and promised that she wouldn’t.
To begin with, the girl attended only the poorest homes. For who would want the services of a young girl in a shabby dress when they could have a proper physician, or even an apothecary? But plenty of folk had no choice and were grateful for anyone who cared to come. The girl was glad to go where she was wanted and was always careful to obey Death’s instructions.
Then one day, the word spread throughout the town. The young prince was gravely ill. The apothecaries and physicians had failed, and the king and queen would pay any price to one who could cure him. The girl pitied the prince, but she envied him too. No one would pay any price to save her life. So she set off for the palace. The guards scoffed at the sight of a barefoot girl with nothing but a bottle of green liquid in her hand. But then they saw Death approaching the palace gates, black robes billowing behind her, and their ruddy faces blanched in terror. They hurried the girl inside and barred the gates, practically pushing her up the stairs to the prince’s room.
But Death was there before them, at the foot of the young man’s bed. It was a shame, thought the girl, as she sat on the bed to examine her patient. He was so young; it was not fair for Death to take him now. And then the girl did something brave. Or something foolish. Or maybe both at once. She could not say what made her do it. Perhaps it was the silent weeping of the queen or the reddened eyes of the king. Perhaps it was not. More likely it was the way the prince’s dark locks fell across his forehead and the way he grabbed the girl’s hand as she reached out to touch his fevered brow. Whatever her reason, she called two guards to her, strong men both, and whispered in their ears. At her command, one took the prince’s shoulders and the other his feet. They reversed his position on the bed. The girl tipped the cordial down his throat and looked up at Death, now at the head of the bed.
Cold filled the room as Death approached her goddaughter. She laid a cold white hand upon the girl’s cheek. “You are young, my child; I shall forgive you. But do not disobey me again.”
The goddaughter was sorry. Mostly. She shook her head and promised she would never disobey again, a tear of contrition freezing as it trickled down her cheek. Death was gone then, black robes fading into the room like steam from a boiling pot, but no one noticed.The prince was sitting up in bed, the color already returning to his cheeks.The king and queen rejoiced, and the maids and the guards rushed out to share the good news. But the prince had eyes for no one but the girl who had saved his life.
Now though our story has no ever after, it does have some happily, and that begins here. For they married, of course, as you knew they would. The girl became a princess and, in time, a queen. She healed her subjects when she could and nursed them with care when she could not. She was renowned for her knowledge and her wisdom, for she was never tempted to defy Death again. At least, not until the day she came into her firstborn’s room and found the godmother at the foot of the girl’s bed.
Again the goddaughter was brave, and again she was foolish. This time it was the queen herself who lifted the girl off the bed. The princess was only a little thing, so light that the queen reversed her position on the bed in one blink of Death’s black eye. The child drank the cordial and sank back onto the bed.
The queen was not sorry. But she knew her godmother would be angry, and she stood to face her. Death approached her, placing one skeletal hand on her goddaughter’s chest. Her touch was light, but the queen felt the breath turn to ice in her lungs. “You are old enough to know better, child,” Death said softly. “And from now on, you shall. Next time, you will welcome my coming.” The queen’s heart stopped, and she slumped to the floor in a rustle of silk as Death withdrew her hand. Then the godmother was gone, disappearing in a swirl of fog like breath on a cold morning. And the queen’s heart beat once more.
Death had been right to say the queen would welcome her coming, for the princess did not recover as her father had. She lingered and wasted, begging her mother to let her go, and the queen could do nothing to ease her pain. All she could do was to implore the godmother’s pardon and entreat her to return. But Death chooses her own time, and she came when she was ready. The queen did indeed welcome Death and begged the godmother to take her too. But Death was used to begging. She merely shook her head and disappeared, her robes trailing up into the air like smoke from a blown-out candle.
The queen could not carry on without her child. But she did carry on, for what choice did she have? She walked with the godmother in the woods, gathering herbs. She healed the sick when she could, nursed them with care when she could not, and curled into her husband’s arms in the dark of the night. And among her grief there was more happily, although no ever after. There was even, when she was almost too old to give up hoping for such things, another child, a son this time.
When Death returned to the palace the queen was not ready, and she knew she never would be. The godmother stood at the foot of the king’s bed, just as she had stood there all those years before when he was only a prince. When the prince and the healer had never even met and the barefoot girl with the bottle of cordial had so much less to lose. But now the girl was a woman, and lose she did. Not all, but enough. Again she begged the godmother to take her too. But Death was used to begging. She merely shook her head, her robes dissipating into the room like mist in the morning sun.
The queen could not carry on without her husband. And yet she did, for what else could she do? She and the godmother took her little son for walks in the woods, showing him what herbs to pick and how to make the cordial. She ruled her kingdom with wisdom and compassion. She took the prince with her to visit sickbeds, healing when she could and nursing with care when she could not.
When Death returned for her at last, the queen welcomed her with a kiss. She called for the prince. She told the boy, nearly a man now, that he must be brave, and she hoped no more foolish than necessary. She said there would be no need for the cordial this time, and she kissed her son goodbye. Then she took the godmother’s robes in her hand and begged a favor with her dying breath. She asked Death to stand godmother to her son when she was gone. Death was used to begging, but she had grown to like this favor, so she nodded her agreement.
Before the prince, now the king, could call for the guards to move his mother on the bed, before he could unstopper his cordial or even beg, before he could do anything but grab a fistful of Death’s robes, all was over. Death’s robes turned to smoke in his trembling hand, and the boy was alone.
But Death was true to her promise, and the young king became a healer like his mother. He was brave at times and foolish at others and sometimes both at once. He knew Death’s rules, and perhaps he obeyed them, perhaps he did not. But that is the godson’s tale. The goddaughter’s tale is over. They will have the same end, though. While we may have some happily, there will be no ever after.
For Death makes sure that all our stories end the same.
Lissa Sloan's poems and short stories are published in Enchanted Conversation, Niteblade Magazine, Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, andFrozen Fairy Tales. “Death in Winter,” Lissa's contribution to Frozen Fairy Tales, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her online at her website,lissasloan.com, or on Twitter: @LissaSloan.
Story ART by: Amanda Bergloff